Why Would Anyone Care About Sara Lemmon?

I confess. I’m smitten.

People who know me well are (all too) aware that for the past several years I’ve been obsessively plugging away at a research project.

Sara Plummer-1865_sm

Photos by Wynne Brown; originals at the University and Jepson Herbaria Archives, University of California, Berkeley

I’m now going public with my obsession.

I’m so smitten that the voice of this plucky woman has pulled me — not once or twice, but three times — all the way from Tucson to Berkeley. That’s where her letters are stored, in the University of California and Jepson Herbaria archives. And that’s where I’ve photographed her century-old correspondence, all 1,200 pages of it. With my iPhone.

I’m now (slowly) transcribing those pages.

But there’s more to this story than just words…

Sara Plummer Lemmon wasn’t only an observant, prolific, and engaging correspondent: According to one source at the time, her gift for drawing in the field combined with her thirst for scientific knowledge made her “one of the most accurate painters of nature in the State.”

Tragically, most of her illustrations were lost, possibly in one of the fires that accompanied the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Fortunately, two boxes of her artwork had been stored in Hawaii and were donated recently to the Berkeley archives. Times being what they are, the university lacked the funds to examine and evaluate the extremely fragile works, which are all on paper.

So, with the help of generous donors (thank you, again!), I hired a local conservator whose efforts revealed 276 watercolors and field sketches. Which of course I also photographed.

Here are two of them – both signed and dated, and painted by Sara in the field, in Southern Arizona’s Huachuaca Mountains in the fall of 1882.

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WBrown-SLemmon-35

More details on her artwork (those brown spots are called “foxing” and have a fascinating story all of their own) to come in a future post.

Most recently, I’ve submitted a nonfiction book proposal to various agents, along with three publishers. Here’s how I’ve described the book:

LIKE DEATH TO BE IDLE: Sara Plummer Lemmon, 19th-Century Artist, Scientist, and Explorer, blends popular science, history, and biography. It uses Sara’s exquisite artwork and lively correspondence to bring another female ‘Hidden Figure’ of science to general readers. Her story is one of tenacity and grit, of Western exploration, pioneer women, Apache warfare, the Civil War—and romance.”

Who IS this woman? and why would anyone in 2017 care about her?

Sara Plummer was born in Maine in 1836 and educated in Massachusetts. She then taught art and “calisthenics” (known to us as gym) in New York City. In 1870 her story becomes that of the early American West: At 33, driven by poor health in the East Coast climate, she relocated—all alone—to Santa Barbara. There she taught herself botany and established the community’s first library in the back room of a stationery store. In 1880, she married John Lemmon, a Civil War veteran and renowned botanist, and moved to Oakland; the couple spent the rest of their lives collecting and describing hundreds of new trees and flowers, all illustrated by Sara. Her letters document their often-harrowing trips through the unsettled West, including the Arizona Territory and northern Mexico. By then she was an acknowledged botanical expert in her own right: She was the second woman allowed in the California Academy of Sciences—and the first to be invited to speak to the group.

In addition to being an artist, scientist, and writer, Sara somehow also contributed her time to journalism, women’s suffrage, and forest conservation.

I believe Sara’s story is a universal one of determination, resilience, and courage—and is as relevant to our nation today as it was in the 1880s.

And I believe it deserves to be heard.

Stay tuned …

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My New Hero: Harry

Today got off to a slow start, but I eventually drove across town to the Douglas Spring trail, hoping to run off some of the election gloom I’ve been wallowing in all week. The morning was glorious: sapphire sky, breezy, but still warm enough (in November?!) for T-shirt and shorts.

The crunch of dirt underfoot, a lucky glimpse of a javelina scampering off among the sentinel saguaros, a lizard rustling under a leafless fairy duster, ocotillo branches waving gently, the backlit thorns of prickly pear paddles amid pillows of winter-dry grasses—it was all as cathartic as I’d hoped.

The Douglas Spring trail, in Saguaro National Park, east of Tucson

The Douglas Spring trail, in Saguaro National Park, east of Tucson

But still I brooded about how politics can fracture friendships, about the fragility of a warming planet, about the value of wearing safety pins.

After an hour, lighter-hearted but still not quite ready to face the world—or Saturday chores—, I turned around.  A hiker was working his way up the trail slowly toward me, an older man using two hiking poles and wearing a hat, white polo shirt, khaki shorts, sturdy boots. As he came closer, I could see an old-fashioned cell phone, the kind with a stubby antenna, in his shirt pocket and two water bottles hanging off his hip belt.

I stepped aside to give him room to pass, and we both paused to say “Good morning” and to comment on the beauty of the day and our surroundings.

Somehow, the conversation continued—about the steepness of the trail, about the route we’d each chosen today, other Tucson trails we like, recent rattlesnakes we’d seen and where they were, other places we’d hiked: Glacier in Montana for me, Loon Lake in Idaho for him. He told me about the triumph of walking 200 miles of the John Muir trail many years ago—today he’d be doing about an 8-mile loop.

I was curious about his age. I told him I ran the Flagstaff trail half-marathon last month and about accomplishing my goal of being the first female finisher—on Medicare.

Honesty then compelled me to admit that I was also the only female finisher on Medicare. Every other woman at the run was under 65.

He laughed, then looked thoughtful for a moment as he did the arithmetic. “I’m 23 years older than you,” he said. “I’m 89.”

We chatted another couple of minutes, introduced ourselves—”My name’s Harry,” he said—, shook hands, wished one another many more steps on the trail, and said good-bye.

As I headed back down the mountain, I thought about how much I’d enjoyed meeting Harry.

And that I like him.

No matter who he voted for.

Canvassing the Neighborhood – Musings

Yesterday was two days before the 2016 election, and Dave and I chose to spend a beautiful Sunday afternoon volunteering for the Get Out the Vote effort. By nature, we are both Shy Persons who detest and avoid cold-calling and accosting strangers.

But we decided that desperate times call for crawling out of our comfort zone.

 Image courtesy of www.gograph.com

Image courtesy of http://www.gograph.com

We were assigned to make the second pass through a South Tucson neighborhood that’s close to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Our trainer told us that each household included at least one potential voter who’s registered as a Democrat in the past, if not currently. She then offered snacks and water before handing us a binder containing data sheets, a map, and a script with friendly non-threatening language that stresses the importance of voting in general—and adds hopefully, “Can the Arizona Democratic Party count on your vote?”

Our data sheets listed individuals by name, age, address, gender, political party, and if they’re on the Pima County Early Voter list. Most were male and female Democrats, but some were listed as (O) for Other party or Other gender.

Our job was to indicate on the sheet if the person was “In Support,” “Against,” “Voted Already,” or “Not Home.” There’s room on the form to add comments like “This person has moved—,” “Person refused to talk to us—,” or “Large fierce dog prevented access.”

We spent three hours and knocked on about 30 doors. At around half the addresses, no one responded: Sometimes we concluded no one was home; other times, we were pretty sure someone was home but chose to not come to the door.

Here’s what else we noticed:

• The process wasn’t nearly as scary as two Shy Persons thought it would be, and it was actually kind of fun.

• Tucson has a remarkable number of small yappy dogs who take their jobs as four-legged doorbells very seriously.

• Many people have their televisions on in the middle of Sunday afternoon—whether they’re there or not.

• The voter rolls need to be updated: We were surprised by how many people had moved away.

• The friendliest, kindest, most courteous people were either Hispanic or Vietnamese (his wife was making egg rolls that smelled scrumptious): They all shook our hands, thanked us for what we were doing, and one even offered us water.

• We were particularly impressed by the woman who explained that her daughter-in-law, the potential voter, had just given birth that day—and could we come back another time? (We all agreed the voter might have more important things on her mind.)

• The crabbiest person was a twenty-something mom who said, “I don’t want to talk politics—“ and quickly closed the door. (Well, really, this year? Who could blame her?) Oh, and the man we could hear but didn’t see whose young niece told us: “He says to tell you ‘I don’t vote!’”

• All the kids who answered the doorbell—they ranged from about 3 to a young man who just turned 18 in September (and hadn’t registered to vote)—were unfailingly friendly and polite.

• One woman, age 43, said she hadn’t voted in a while and wondered when Election Day was …

• And then there was the potential voter’s teenage son who said: “My mom voted already. I know she didn’t vote for, umm, that guy—what’s his name? She voted for, umm, the other person …”

Name recognition, gender, age, nationality of origin, crabby or shy—all that aside … .

Whatever happens Tuesday, may ALL people be safe—and may civility, kindness, and respect for the law prevail.

Dream Deferred

1999 Boston Marathon (Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, Creative Commons license)

1999 Boston Marathon (Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, Creative Commons license)

Recently, I ran across a poem by Langston Hughes:

Harlem

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up 
like a raisin in the sun? 
Or fester like a sore– 
And then run? 
Does it stink like rotten meat? 
Or crust and sugar over– 
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags 
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

According to Delores Moore, Hughes was describing the deep frustration of the American blacks to racial prejudice in 1951 — and predicting the explosive future.

Six decades later, Langston Hughes’ poem is still relevant in a world where so many of us defer our dreams until later in life, thinking we’ll have more time, or more money, or more opportunity.

But for some, “later” never happens.

• A blast in the local fertilizer plant flattens half the town …

• A stroke fells the lover we once had …

• A garment factory collapses in Bangladesh, killing hundreds …

• Or celebrating a loved one’s marathon effort on a shining April afternoon explodes into a mass of shrapnel, blood, and shattered limbs…

For those of watching on the sidelines, can anything good emerge from such grief and pain? Can distant tragedies have the power to change the way we live our lives at home?

Maybe.

Maybe, either in honor or defiance, we can choose to give our dreams a chance — and not let them dry up, or fester, or stink.

What’s my dream? Writing the longform journalism stories that have been tugging at my sleeve for years — deferred because they’re unlikely to pay the bills.

I have no direct ties to Boston, nor do I know any of the dead or injured beyond the intimate and gruesome details we all saw. Yet, three weeks ago the Tsarnaev brothers changed the way I view my work.

I no longer send my creative time to the bottom of the list, to evenings and late nights, when my energy level has sagged.

Now writing comes first, re-assigned to my personal prime time, to those golden morning hours. It may seem like a trivial adjustment, a mere tweaking of the time clock. After all, I won’t be turning down paying assignments. But, to me, by giving these untold stories precedence over billable hours, I’m giving my writing dream a chance.

So. What about you? What dreams have you deferred?

And what event has changed the way you choose to live and work?

“No Project Too Weird”

Zinsser-shelfWhat serious writer doesn’t have William Zinsser on his or her bookshelf? On Writing Well and Writing to Learn are both books I return to often.

This morning’s New York Times has a piece by Dan Barry about Zinsser’s transition from writing coach to one who still teaches — by listening. Zinsser, now 90, has glaucoma and can no longer see.

But he’s still teaching and, according to the article, is available “for help with writing problems and stalled editorial projects and memoirs and family history; for singalongs and piano lessons and vocal coaching; for readings and salons and whatever pastimes you may devise that will keep both of us interested and amused.

“I’m eager to hear from you. No project too weird.”

Thank you, Mr. Zinsser, for still being willing to help.

In love … with an octopus??

Photo by Brandon Cole

Photo by Brandon Cole

I confess. I’ve always been a lover of cephalopods – and not just for dinner.

In “Deep Intellect: Inside the Mind of an Octopus,” published in the Nov/Dec issue of Orion magazine, Sy Montgomery has written a stunning piece of literary journalism. By meeting Athena, a 5-foot, 40-pound Pacific octopus, we see these creatures’ personalities, opinions, intelligence, ability to “see” with their skin, and even their need to play.

Not surprisingly, the article has leapt to the top of Orion magazine’s most-read list. Click here to see why. You can also download a conversation with the author here in which she explains more about how writing this story affected her.

A wonderful read — thank you, Sy Montgomery and Orion!

Even if it does mean I may never eat octopus again.